Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A dictator's track record counts

Singapore, Wednesday • May 31, 2006

Those accusing Suharto of corruption may be myopic

Thang D Nguyen

INDONESIAN politics heated up recently when Attorney-General Abdul Rahman Saleh announced that corruption charges against former President Suharto had been dropped.

The announcement — which came as Mr Suharto, 84, was hospitalised for internal bleeding — was based on grounds that he is physically unfit to stand trial.

"Our conclusion, after hearing the statement from the doctors, is that Suharto's condition is getting worse," Mr Saleh said. Thus, "Suharto is no longer a defendant, he is a free man," he said.

The decision caused an outcry among students, activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In fact, a case has already been filed against the attorney general's office for its decision on Mr Suharto — who was ousted after 32 years in power amid student protests and nationwide riots in 1998, and was charged with embezzling US$600 million ($946.4 million) in 2000.

Meanwhile, the government's response has been mixed. A few days before the attorney general's announcement, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla supported the idea that the charges against Mr Suharto be dropped.

Hours before the announcement, however, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the charges should not be dropped.

A few days later, the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission said the decision regarding Mr Suharto lay with Dr Yudhoyono.

Shortly after, Cabinet Secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra announced that the President would drop Mr Suharto's case and rehabilitate the former leader's reputation.

But on May 20, a day after visiting the ailing Suharto in hospital, Dr Yudhoyono told student activists in Bandung: "I'm not supposed to interfere so let law enforcers handle it." Meanwhile, there were ongoing street protests in major cities in Indonesia, demanding that Mr Suharto be tried.

The President's shift in position was attacked by critics.

"If (Suharto is pardoned), it would set a bad precedent in which corrupt top officials could demand the same thing," said Mr Amien Rais, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mr Amien has a point. After all, one of the highlights of Dr Yudhoyono's election campaign was his pledge to tackle corruption. Shortly after coming to power, he set up the anti-corruption commission.

His decision regarding Mr Suharto seems to undermine the current anti-graft campaign. What's more, criticism of this soft stance comes at a bad time for Dr Yudhoyono. Following a fuel hike last year and a pro-business revision of a 2003 labour law, his ratings have fallen markedly.

It is unclear what will happen next to the Suharto case. There are some points to consider: Assuming he is put on trial, can prosecutors prove the charges against him?

If the answer is no, then it may be best to reconsider the case.

Secondly, did Mr Suharto engage in corrupt activities while in office, or did his children and cronies? If it is the latter, the prosecutors should put them on trial and freeze their assets.

Thirdly, if he is found guilty, what sentence should he get? An ailing 84-year-old wouldn't last long in a prison cell. More importantly, nothing much is achieved by putting him there, although, symbolically, it would look as though justice were being served.

One must bear in mind that Mr Suharto had been charged with corruption and not any other wrongdoing. When critics speak out against the dropping of the graft charges, this is mixed with a complaint — that justice has not been served in terms of addressing Mr Suharto's wrongs as a dictator in his 32 years in power. If they insist that he be tried for other crimes, they should call for separate charges — perhaps relating to human rights violations.

However, when critics accuse Mr Suharto of corruption, thereby committing "a sin" against his nation, they fail to recognise what he has done for Indonesia.

Indonesia under Mr Suharto fared better economically than it has in the past eight years. Under him, Indonesia's economic growth was on par with the East Asian tigers — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. For this reason, Indonesians have called Mr Suharto "Bapak Pembangunan", or "Father of Development".

As the Indonesian authorities decide if Mr Suharto should be tried, they should do a cost-benefit analysis to see if it is really worth making him stand trial. And, apart from his health, they should bear in mind what Mr Suharto has done for Indonesia.

Thang Nguyen is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at

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